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Wednesday
Sep092009

Doc Rivers and the 2008 Title

       Doc Rivers is currently the Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. When he was hired, he quickly gained a reputation in Boston as an all-around great person, but it was unknown if he could lead the team to an NBA championship. Before the 2007-8 season, his job was in jeopardy because of a perception that his teams had underperformed and that his tactical knowledge was not great enough to guide the Celtics to the requisite victories.

       In that summer of 2007, Doc received a boost in the form of two (possibly miraculous) trades that brought veteran All-Star players Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the team. With these players added to resident star Paul Pierce, the team was sure to improve no matter who was coaching. The players deservedly garnered a great deal of praise as they stormed into the playoffs, riding a tenacious defense to the Finals where they and took a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against their old rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.

       Seemingly on the brink of a championship, the Celtics responded with six terrible quarters of basketball, getting blown out in game 3 in Los Angeles and falling behind by 21 points in the first quarter of the next game. Midway through the third quarter, Doc's team was down by 24 points and in danger of facing the Lakers for a crucial game 5 in LA.

       It should be said that in the Lakers had been playing phenomenally, especially some of their younger players who seemingly could not miss a shot for a game and half. About midway through the third quarter, Doc was interviewed about what he told his team during a timeout. He calmly explained that he had reminded them about their greatest strength, their defense, and how playing great defense was something that they could achieve if they committed to it. He also told his team that the only important aspect of the rest of the game was that they "compete." He did not emphasize closing the deficit, scoring, or looking good. He wanted them to find something within themselves and fight for the game.

       Watching at the time, I was not sure if Rivers believed what he had said or expected it to work. In truth, I still think he may have just been hoping his team could get an iota of positive feeling going into the next game if they brought the margin of defeat down to something respectable.

       As it turned out, his team performed beautifully for the rest of the game as the young Laker players began missing almost every shot. The Celtic defense clamped down, they hit a few shots, and ended up winning by 5.

Why this is great:
1. His instructions were simple and clear.
2. He focused the team on their strength: defense.
3. He took the emphasis off the score. Therefore, the team could focus more on the process and performance rather than the outcome.

       Was it this speech that made the difference? There's no way to be certain, but I do know that his team looked whipped beforehand and were cruising to their second straight blowout loss. Afterwards, they played their best and were competitive. They lost the next game in the last few seconds, and then won the series in the next game in the most lopsided series clinching game ever.

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